Chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, anxiety, stress: all are candidates for treatment with medications. But there is a resource for managing these and other conditions closer at hand. It’s completely natural, always available, and capable of adapting to any situation.
It’s the mind. Learning to tap and harness its power was the focus recently of five patients at The Center for Integrative Medicine (TCFIM) at University of Colorado Hospital. The group, guided by TCFIM psychologists, recently completed a four-week course on mindfulness, an approach to living that is much in the news but is anything but new.
Mindfulness classes at The Center for Integrative Medicine help patients focus on their surroundings and state of mind and accept them without judgment.
The timing was right, said Justin Ross, a psychologist who has been with TCFIM since 2010. Thanks to a large multi-purpose space in its recently constructed Stapleton facility, it’s the first time TCFIM has offered a group mindfulness class. More importantly, mindfulness is in demand.
“We’ve long been practicing mindfulness with our patients,” Ross said “Mindfulness is now a buzzword. You can’t go a day without reading or hearing about it in some context. It’s a simple concept that has a big impact on well-being.”
Free your mind
In essence, Ross said, being mindful means staying aware of and connected to one’s current experiences as well as the surrounding environment. It’s an “antidote to living on auto-pilot and going through the motions” day to day, he explained.
Individuals who become more aware of what occurs within them and around them can find new ways of responding, Ross said. For example, an individual struggling with chronic pain can easily give in to frustration and stress and descend into depression and perhaps a cycle of medications that offer diminishing benefits. An alternative, Ross said, is acceptance of the situation and, perhaps, discovery of healthier responses to it.
“If it snows, getting mad at the snow doesn’t make it stop snowing,” he said. “With mindfulness, we try to help patients live with experiences they may not necessarily desire, such as pain, but in a more effective manner. Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. It means living the life you have while modifying a new approach.”
One of the simplest but most effective ways to do that, Ross said, is through our most natural and necessary act: breathing. When a person concentrates on each individual breath, the mind moves to that and away from the thing causing physical or emotional pain and stress. Doing that, ironically, also means being cognizant of those undesirable things, Ross added.
“You can’t change what you are not aware of,” he said. “We help people learn how to be mindful about a variety of their experiences.”
Ross noted that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the effectiveness of mindfulness in reducing anxiety and stress, mitigating pain and managing depression. There is also a slowly growing body of research. One study, for example, concluded that mindfulness training helped to improve a sense of well-being and reduce feelings of stress and burnout in primary care physicians. Another produced similar findings for a broader group of health care providers, including physicians, nurses, social workers and psychologists. There is also evidence that mindfulness techniques can help relieve pain by changing the way the brain perceives it.
While Western medicine must define the benefit of mindfulness by measuring things like stress reduction, Ross noted that its origins lie in Eastern philosophy and the concept of simple openness and acceptance.
“In the true approach of mindfulness and meditation, there are no goals, there is no striving, there is nothing you are trying to achieve,” he said. In that sense, the idea is simply to give people the tools to find individual pathways that help them improve the quality of their lives. Reducing pain, using fewer medications, and feeling less stress might well be byproducts of that.
Now is the time
The broad applications of mindfulness training give it great potential for TCFIM and the hospital as a whole, said Practice Manager Steve Tung. For example, mindfulness classes could help patients struggling with intertwined medical and behavioral health issues or offer expectant moms on mild anxiety medications a drug-free alternative.
“There is a movement in health care toward wellness and a growing awareness of the connection between the mind and body,” he said.
In addition, Tung said, group classes like the one that recently concluded can help improve patient access by freeing psychologists from a constant slate of one-to-one sessions. “It’s also a win for providers because it gives them a different setting to see patients and breaks up the day,” he said.
The next mindfulness class, slated to begin June 24, will again focus on teaching patients the concepts of mindfulness, demonstrating exercises, practicing them, talking about them, and getting feedback, Ross said. The room provides a setting conducive to the subject matter: He can offer patients yoga mats or blankets and can dim the lights to set a peaceful tone.
That wasn’t possible in TCFIM’s old location in the Anschutz Outpatient Pavilion, Tung said. “Having a multi-purpose room has made a big difference,” he said. “We now have everything we need to facilitate a group session.”
The next round will expand to six weeks. “The first class was very successful, but the psychologists said it needs to be a little bit longer,” Tung said. “It’s part of the process of refinement.”
For more information on mindfulness and other classes offered at The Center for Integrative Medicine, 3055 Roslyn Street, Denver, call 720-553-2750.